On the Loss of a Writing Group Friend

The dog always met us at the door for the writers group. If I were young and easy and still given to such literary imaginings, I might today conjure up this creature to be Cerberus, the black hellhound guarding the entrance to the underworld, glistening snout askew, sharp teeth bared and dripping blood, lunging toward us behind the glass.

However, I am not young, nor easy. And truth be told (as it must), Fisher was a Portuguese Water Dog, black like Cerberus, yes, but hardly ferocious and hardly a threat to anyone or anything—friend or foe—that dared enter that homey domain.

And no, there were no signs above the front door, no warnings affixed to the archway into the dining room, nothing to take my breath away, no words of doom that would not disappoint me should they miraculously appear:

Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.

Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.

Through me the way into the suffering city,
Through me the way to the eternal pain,
Through me the way that runs among the lost.

Before me nothing but eternal things were made,
And I endure eternally
Abandon every hope, ye who enter here.
— from Inferno, by Dante Alighieri, translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

No. Despite my most fervent wish or fear that I might be walking into the underworld, there were no miracles to be found behind the heavy glass door. No swooning visions. No saints with arrows piercing their ribs. None. If you had stood on your tiptoes in the manicured flower bed and peered through the side window into the dining room of that warm and inviting home, it would have appeared as nothing more than an ordinary Tuesday night among friends gathering to share their writing, people with common names—Cathy, Carla, John, Lisa, Steve—each in semicircular view of one man’s shifting eyes. Neil.

I won’t go into the particulars of any one Tuesday evening that remarkable year, the peculiar splitting of infinitives to make a sentence not whole but holy, the odd sharing of previously unspoken intimacies, some shared messianic belief in the word as a password to eternity, the turning of pages, the scratching of pens, the laughably hard work of transforming base words into precious metal, unguarded voices edging into the shadows, and that anguishing silence when one beautiful truth or another slips out between the lines.

Does it now matter, nearly two years after Neil’s death, that he was in a motorized wheelchair? No. That, having lost first coordination, then movement, then speech to a hellish manifestation of natural selection, ALS, he spoke to us through a miraculous technological device that was an inexplicably luminous and preternatural extension of his thoughts? No. That it had somehow come to Cathy, alone, week after week, to turn the pages for him, to mop his brow? No.

No, it did not matter to the pathwork of our good group that Neil was on a treacherous trail into the wilderness that none of us would ever choose to undertake ourselves. Nor did it matter that this was his journey alone—how could it be anything else?—and that we were, each of us, merely carried along in the fast-moving current of a good man’s unchosen destiny.

Yet, don’t think for a moment that we five were not swept along in the undeniable currents that carried the man beyond himself—sometimes passively, arms outstretched like birds caught in the draft; sometimes impassively, hands folded across heaving chests, watching mutely as boulders and trees claimed by the tornado passed us by, days and nights like celluloid frames flickering behind our eyes. It was our journey, too. Each one of us. Alone.

My private leg of the lonely passage did not begin or end at Villa Lane in the tony Westchester village of Larchmont. In retrospect, it seems now to have originated somewhere on the trek home those Tuesday nights, when I would enter my own wilderness—often as I was speeding up the dark Hutchinson River Parkway, sometimes stopping at a Mobil station for a lukewarm hot dog and overpriced gas, and then on the Cross County Parkway, where, without intention or hope, I would cross back into some animal awareness, into the stories I had just heard, journeys all, reminding me in the most humbling and beatific ways that I am nothing more or less than any beast in the forest.

And so, 75 miles or lifetimes later, after bridges and tolls that would shift the landscape, the earth crumpled and riven inside and out, one leg of my voyage would end, and I would roll down the long potholed drive to a yellow clapboard house deep in a hundred-year growth of woods, porch lights on.

Those nights I would get out of the car and, one season stumbling into the next, hear voices in the chirping of the peepers, in the scrapings of the crickets, in the crunch of snow, in the howl of the coyotes just beyond the tree line. And then in the barking of my own black dog, the sweet, dimwitted Gloria, who, after all these years sleeping at the foot of my bed, would not recognize me, week after week, a lapsed Jew, walking, weary but unbowed, across some vast unexplored clearing in the forest, up the six wooden steps to the long porch, knowing only that I would open the door, nuzzle my dearest dear, slide my palm along her hip, and then climb the stairs to do what I must do, every day in darkness and light, for no earthly reason, for Neil Selinger, some ancient imperative to howl at the moon, to feed my ravaging hunger, to speak the voice of scripture not my own:

Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter.
— Revelation 1:19

Publishing Information

  • “Canto III: The Gate of Hell” from Inferno, the first part of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (written between c. 1308 and Dante’s death in 1321; first print edition published in Foligno, Italy, in 1472 by Johann Numeister and Evangelista Angelini; English translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, first published in 1867 by Ticknor and Fields).
  • Revelation 1:19 (King James Version).